"Cosette," Book Three: Chapter VIII
THE UNPLEASANTNESS OF RECEIVING INTO ONE'S HOUSE A POOR MAN WHO MAY BE A RICH MAN
Cosette could not refrain from casting a sidelong glance at the big doll, which was still displayed at the toy-merchant's; then she knocked. The door opened. The Thénardier appeared with a candle in her hand.
"Ah! so it's you, you little wretch! good mercy, but you've taken your time! The hussy has been amusing herself!"
"Madame," said Cosette, trembling all over, "here's a gentleman who wants a lodging."
The Thénardier speedily replaced her gruff air by her amiable grimace, a change of aspect common to tavern-keepers, and eagerly sought the newcomer with her eyes.
"This is the gentleman?" said she.
"Yes, Madame," replied the man, raising his hand to his hat.
Wealthy travellers are not so polite. This gesture, and an inspection of the stranger's costume and baggage, which the Thénardier passed in review with one glance, caused the amiable grimace to vanish, and the gruff mien to reappear. She resumed dryly:—
"Enter, my good man."
The "good man" entered. The Thénardier cast a second glance at him, paid particular attention to his frock-coat, which was absolutely threadbare, and to his hat, which was a little battered, and, tossing her head, wrinkling her nose, and screwing up her eyes, she consulted her husband, who was still drinking with the carters. The husband replied by that imperceptible movement of the forefinger, which, backed up by an inflation of the lips, signifies in such cases: A regular beggar. Thereupon, the Thénardier exclaimed:—
"Ah! see here, my good man; I am very sorry, but I have no room left."
"Put me where you like," said the man; "in the attic, in the stable. I will pay as though I occupied a room."
"Forty sous; agreed."
"Very well, then!"
"Forty sous!" said a carter, in a low tone, to the Thénardier woman; "why, the charge is only twenty sous!"
"It is forty in his case," retorted the Thénardier, in the same tone. "I don't lodge poor folks for less."
"That's true," added her husband, gently; "it ruins a house to have such people in it."
In the meantime, the man, laying his bundle and his cudgel on a bench, had seated himself at a table, on which Cosette made haste to place a bottle of wine and a glass. The merchant who had demanded the bucket of water took it to his horse himself. Cosette resumed her place under the kitchen table, and her knitting.
The man, who had barely moistened his lips in the wine which he had poured out for himself, observed the child with peculiar attention.
Cosette was ugly. If she had been happy, she might have been pretty. We have already given a sketch of that sombre little figure. Cosette was thin and pale; she was nearly eight years old, but she seemed to be hardly six. Her large eyes, sunken in a sort of shadow, were almost put out with weeping. The corners of her mouth had that curve of habitual anguish which is seen in condemned persons and desperately sick people. Her hands were, as her mother had divined, "ruined with chilblains." The fire which illuminated her at that moment brought into relief all the angles of her bones, and rendered her thinness frightfully apparent. As she was always shivering, she had acquired the habit of pressing her knees one against the other. Her entire clothing was but a rag which would have inspired pity in summer, and which inspired horror in winter. All she had on was hole-ridden linen, not a scrap of woollen. Her skin was visible here and there and everywhere black and blue spots could be descried, which marked the places where the Thénardier woman had touched her. Her naked legs were thin and red. The hollows in her neck were enough to make one weep. This child's whole person, her mien, her attitude, the sound of her voice, the intervals which she allowed to elapse between one word and the next, her glance, her silence, her slightest gesture, expressed and betrayed one sole idea,—fear.
Fear was diffused all over her; she was covered with it, so to speak; fear drew her elbows close to her hips, withdrew her heels under her petticoat, made her occupy as little space as possible, allowed her only the breath that was absolutely necessary, and had become what might be called the habit of her body, admitting of no possible variation except an increase. In the depths of her eyes there was an astonished nook where terror lurked.
Her fear was such, that on her arrival, wet as she was, Cosette did not dare to approach the fire and dry herself, but sat silently down to her work again.
The expression in the glance of that child of eight years was habitually so gloomy, and at times so tragic, that it seemed at certain moments as though she were on the verge of becoming an idiot or a demon.
As we have stated, she had never known what it is to pray; she had never set foot in a church. "Have I the time?" said the Thénardier.
The man in the yellow coat never took his eyes from Cosette.
All at once, the Thénardier exclaimed:—
"By the way, where's that bread?"
Cosette, according to her custom whenever the Thénardier uplifted her voice, emerged with great haste from beneath the table.
She had completely forgotten the bread. She had recourse to the expedient of children who live in a constant state of fear. She lied.
"Madame, the baker's shop was shut."
"You should have knocked."
"I did knock, Madame."
"He did not open the door."
"I'll find out to-morrow whether that is true," said the Thénardier; "and if you are telling me a lie, I'll lead you a pretty dance. In the meantime, give me back my fifteen-sou piece."
Cosette plunged her hand into the pocket of her apron, and turned green. The fifteen-sou piece was not there.
"Ah, come now," said Madame Thénardier, "did you hear me?"
Cosette turned her pocket inside out; there was nothing in it. What could have become of that money? The unhappy little creature could not find a word to say. She was petrified.
"Have you lost that fifteen-sou piece?" screamed the Thénardier, hoarsely, "or do you want to rob me of it?"
At the same time, she stretched out her arm towards the cat-o'-nine-tails which hung on a nail in the chimney-corner.
This formidable gesture restored to Cosette sufficient strength to shriek:—
"Mercy, Madame, Madame! I will not do so any more!"
The Thénardier took down the whip.
In the meantime, the man in the yellow coat had been fumbling in the fob of his waistcoat, without any one having noticed his movements. Besides, the other travellers were drinking or playing cards, and were not paying attention to anything.
Cosette contracted herself into a ball, with anguish, within the angle of the chimney, endeavoring to gather up and conceal her poor half-nude limbs. The Thénardier raised her arm.
"Pardon me, Madame," said the man, "but just now I caught sight of something which had fallen from this little one's apron pocket, and rolled aside. Perhaps this is it."
At the same time he bent down and seemed to be searching on the floor for a moment.
"Exactly; here it is," he went on, straightening himself up.
And he held out a silver coin to the Thénardier.
"Yes, that's it," said she.
It was not it, for it was a twenty-sou piece; but the Thénardier found it to her advantage. She put the coin in her pocket, and confined herself to casting a fierce glance at the child, accompanied with the remark, "Don't let this ever happen again!"
Cosette returned to what the Thénardier called "her kennel," and her large eyes, which were riveted on the traveller, began to take on an expression such as they had never worn before. Thus far it was only an innocent amazement, but a sort of stupefied confidence was mingled with it.
"By the way, would you like some supper?" the Thénardier inquired of the traveller.
He made no reply. He appeared to be absorbed in thought.
"What sort of a man is that?" she muttered between her teeth. "He's some frightfully poor wretch. He hasn't a sou to pay for a supper. Will he even pay me for his lodging? It's very lucky, all the same, that it did not occur to him to steal the money that was on the floor."
In the meantime, a door had opened, and Éponine and Azelma entered.
They were two really pretty little girls, more bourgeois than peasant in looks, and very charming; the one with shining chestnut tresses, the other with long black braids hanging down her back, both vivacious, neat, plump, rosy, and healthy, and a delight to the eye. They were warmly clad, but with so much maternal art that the thickness of the stuffs did not detract from the coquetry of arrangement. There was a hint of winter, though the springtime was not wholly effaced. Light emanated from these two little beings. Besides this, they were on the throne. In their toilettes, in their gayety, in the noise which they made, there was sovereignty. When they entered, the Thénardier said to them in a grumbling tone which was full of adoration, "Ah! there you are, you children!"
Then drawing them, one after the other to her knees, smoothing their hair, tying their ribbons afresh, and then releasing them with that gentle manner of shaking off which is peculiar to mothers, she exclaimed, "What frights they are!"
They went and seated themselves in the chimney-corner. They had a doll, which they turned over and over on their knees with all sorts of joyous chatter. From time to time Cosette raised her eyes from her knitting, and watched their play with a melancholy air.
Éponine and Azelma did not look at Cosette. She was the same as a dog to them. These three little girls did not yet reckon up four and twenty years between them, but they already represented the whole society of man; envy on the one side, disdain on the other.
The doll of the Thénardier sisters was very much faded, very old, and much broken; but it seemed nonetheless admirable to Cosette, who had never had a doll in her life, a real doll, to make use of the expression which all children will understand.
All at once, the Thénardier, who had been going back and forth in the room, perceived that Cosette's mind was distracted, and that, instead of working, she was paying attention to the little ones at their play.
"Ah! I've caught you at it!" she cried. "So that's the way you work! I'll make you work to the tune of the whip; that I will."
The stranger turned to the Thénardier, without quitting his chair.
"Bah, Madame," he said, with an almost timid air, "let her play!"
Such a wish expressed by a traveller who had eaten a slice of mutton and had drunk a couple of bottles of wine with his supper, and who had not the air of being frightfully poor, would have been equivalent to an order. But that a man with such a hat should permit himself such a desire, and that a man with such a coat should permit himself to have a will, was something which Madame Thénardier did not intend to tolerate. She retorted with acrimony:—
"She must work, since she eats. I don't feed her to do nothing."
"What is she making?" went on the stranger, in a gentle voice which contrasted strangely with his beggarly garments and his porter's shoulders.
The Thénardier deigned to reply:—
"Stockings, if you please. Stockings for my little girls, who have none, so to speak, and who are absolutely barefoot just now."
The man looked at Cosette's poor little red feet, and continued:—
"When will she have finished this pair of stockings?"
"She has at least three or four good days' work on them still, the lazy creature!"
"And how much will that pair of stockings be worth when she has finished them?"
The Thénardier cast a glance of disdain on him.
"Thirty sous at least."
"Will you sell them for five francs?" went on the man.
"Good heavens!" exclaimed a carter who was listening, with a loud laugh; "five francs! the deuce, I should think so! five balls!"
Thénardier thought it time to strike in.
"Yes, sir; if such is your fancy, you will be allowed to have that pair of stockings for five francs. We can refuse nothing to travellers."
"You must pay on the spot," said the Thénardier, in her curt and peremptory fashion.
"I will buy that pair of stockings," replied the man, "and," he added, drawing a five-franc piece from his pocket, and laying it on the table, "I will pay for them."
Then he turned to Cosette.
"Now I own your work; play, my child."
The carter was so much touched by the five-franc piece, that he abandoned his glass and hastened up.
"But it's true!" he cried, examining it. "A real hind wheel! and not counterfeit!"
Thénardier approached and silently put the coin in his pocket.
The Thénardier had no reply to make. She bit her lips, and her face assumed an expression of hatred.
In the meantime, Cosette was trembling. She ventured to ask:—
"Is it true, Madame? May I play?"
"Play!" said the Thénardier, in a terrible voice.
"Thanks, Madame," said Cosette.
And while her mouth thanked the Thénardier, her whole little soul thanked the traveller.
Thénardier had resumed his drinking; his wife whispered in his ear:—
"Who can this yellow man be?"
"I have seen millionaires with coats like that," replied Thénardier, in a sovereign manner.
Cosette had dropped her knitting, but had not left her seat. Cosette always moved as little as possible. She picked up some old rags and her little lead sword from a box behind her.
Éponine and Azelma paid no attention to what was going on. They had just executed a very important operation; they had just got hold of the cat. They had thrown their doll on the ground, and Éponine, who was the elder, was swathing the little cat, in spite of its mewing and its contortions, in a quantity of clothes and red and blue scraps. While performing this serious and difficult work she was saying to her sister in that sweet and adorable language of children, whose grace, like the splendor of the butterfly's wing, vanishes when one essays to fix it fast.
"You see, sister, this doll is more amusing than the other. She twists, she cries, she is warm. See, sister, let us play with her. She shall be my little girl. I will be a lady. I will come to see you, and you shall look at her. Gradually, you will perceive her whiskers, and that will surprise you. And then you will see her ears, and then you will see her tail and it will amaze you. And you will say to me, 'Ah! Mon Dieu!' and I will say to you: 'Yes, Madame, it is my little girl. Little girls are made like that just at present.'"
Azelma listened admiringly to Éponine.
In the meantime, the drinkers had begun to sing an obscene song, and to laugh at it until the ceiling shook. Thénardier accompanied and encouraged them.
As birds make nests out of everything, so children make a doll out of anything which comes to hand. While Éponine and Azelma were bundling up the cat, Cosette, on her side, had dressed up her sword. That done, she laid it in her arms, and sang to it softly, to lull it to sleep.
The doll is one of the most imperious needs and, at the same time, one of the most charming instincts of feminine childhood. To care for, to clothe, to deck, to dress, to undress, to redress, to teach, scold a little, to rock, to dandle, to lull to sleep, to imagine that something is some one,—therein lies the whole woman's future. While dreaming and chattering, making tiny outfits, and baby clothes, while sewing little gowns, and corsages and bodices, the child grows into a young girl, the young girl into a big girl, the big girl into a woman. The first child is the continuation of the last doll.
A little girl without a doll is almost as unhappy, and quite as impossible, as a woman without children.
So Cosette had made herself a doll out of the sword.
Madame Thénardier approached the yellow man; "My husband is right," she thought; "perhaps it is M. Laffitte; there are such queer rich men!"
She came and set her elbows on the table.
"Monsieur," said she. At this word, Monsieur, the man turned; up to that time, the Thénardier had addressed him only as brave homme or bonhomme.
"You see, sir," she pursued, assuming a sweetish air that was even more repulsive to behold than her fierce mien, "I am willing that the child should play; I do not oppose it, but it is good for once, because you are generous. You see, she has nothing; she must needs work."
"Then this child is not yours?" demanded the man.
"Oh! mon Dieu! no, sir! she is a little beggar whom we have taken in through charity; a sort of imbecile child. She must have water on the brain; she has a large head, as you see. We do what we can for her, for we are not rich; we have written in vain to her native place, and have received no reply these six months. It must be that her mother is dead."
"Ah!" said the man, and fell into his reverie once more.
"Her mother didn't amount to much," added the Thénardier; "she abandoned her child."
During the whole of this conversation Cosette, as though warned by some instinct that she was under discussion, had not taken her eyes from the Thénardier's face; she listened vaguely; she caught a few words here and there.
Meanwhile, the drinkers, all three-quarters intoxicated, were repeating their unclean refrain with redoubled gayety; it was a highly spiced and wanton song, in which the Virgin and the infant Jesus were introduced. The Thénardier went off to take part in the shouts of laughter. Cosette, from her post under the table, gazed at the fire, which was reflected from her fixed eyes. She had begun to rock the sort of baby which she had made, and, as she rocked it, she sang in a low voice, "My mother is dead! my mother is dead! my mother is dead!"
On being urged afresh by the hostess, the yellow man, "the millionaire," consented at last to take supper.
"What does Monsieur wish?"
"Bread and cheese," said the man.
"Decidedly, he is a beggar" thought Madame Thénardier.
The drunken men were still singing their song, and the child under the table was singing hers.
All at once, Cosette paused; she had just turned round and caught sight of the little Thénardiers' doll, which they had abandoned for the cat and had left on the floor a few paces from the kitchen table.
Then she dropped the swaddled sword, which only half met her needs, and cast her eyes slowly round the room. Madame Thénardier was whispering to her husband and counting over some money; Ponine and Zelma were playing with the cat; the travellers were eating or drinking or singing; not a glance was fixed on her. She had not a moment to lose; she crept out from under the table on her hands and knees, made sure once more that no one was watching her; then she slipped quickly up to the doll and seized it. An instant later she was in her place again, seated motionless, and only turned so as to cast a shadow on the doll which she held in her arms. The happiness of playing with a doll was so rare for her that it contained all the violence of voluptuousness.
No one had seen her, except the traveller, who was slowly devouring his meagre supper.
This joy lasted about a quarter of an hour.
But with all the precautions that Cosette had taken she did not perceive that one of the doll's legs stuck out and that the fire on the hearth lighted it up very vividly. That pink and shining foot, projecting from the shadow, suddenly struck the eye of Azelma, who said to Éponine, "Look! sister."
The two little girls paused in stupefaction; Cosette had dared to take their doll!
Éponine rose, and, without releasing the cat, she ran to her mother, and began to tug at her skirt.
"Let me alone!" said her mother; "what do you want?"
"Mother," said the child, "look there!"
And she pointed to Cosette.
Cosette, absorbed in the ecstasies of possession, no longer saw or heard anything.
Madame Thénardier's countenance assumed that peculiar expression which is composed of the terrible mingled with the trifles of life, and which has caused this style of woman to be named Megaeras.
On this occasion, wounded pride exasperated her wrath still further. Cosette had overstepped all bounds; Cosette had laid violent hands on the doll belonging to "these young ladies." A czarina who should see a muzhik trying on her imperial son's blue ribbon would wear no other face.
She shrieked in a voice rendered hoarse with indignation:—
Cosette started as though the earth had trembled beneath her; she turned round.
"Cosette!" repeated the Thénardier.
Cosette took the doll and laid it gently on the floor with a sort of veneration, mingled with despair; then, without taking her eyes from it, she clasped her hands, and, what is terrible to relate of a child of that age, she wrung them; then—not one of the emotions of the day, neither the trip to the forest, nor the weight of the bucket of water, nor the loss of the money, nor the sight of the whip, nor even the sad words which she had heard Madame Thénardier utter had been able to wring this from her—she wept; she burst out sobbing.
Meanwhile, the traveller had risen to his feet.
"What is the matter?" he said to the Thénardier.
"Don't you see?" said the Thénardier, pointing to the corpus delicti which lay at Cosette's feet.
"Well, what of it?" resumed the man.
"That beggar," replied the Thénardier, "has permitted herself to touch the children's doll!"
"All this noise for that!" said the man; "well, what if she did play with that doll?"
"She touched it with her dirty hands!" pursued the Thénardier, "with her frightful hands!"
Here Cosette redoubled her sobs.
"Will you stop your noise?" screamed the Thénardier.
The man went straight to the street door, opened it, and stepped out.
As soon as he had gone, the Thénardier profited by his absence to give Cosette a hearty kick under the table, which made the child utter loud cries.
The door opened again, the man reappeared; he carried in both hands the fabulous doll which we have mentioned, and which all the village brats had been staring at ever since the morning, and he set it upright in front of Cosette, saying:—
"Here; this is for you."
It must be supposed that in the course of the hour and more which he had spent there he had taken confused notice through his reverie of that toy shop, lighted up by fire-pots and candles so splendidly that it was visible like an illumination through the window of the drinking-shop.
Cosette raised her eyes; she gazed at the man approaching her with that doll as she might have gazed at the sun; she heard the unprecedented words, "It is for you"; she stared at him; she stared at the doll; then she slowly retreated, and hid herself at the extreme end, under the table in a corner of the wall.
She no longer cried; she no longer wept; she had the appearance of no longer daring to breathe.
The Thénardier, Éponine, and Azelma were like statues also; the very drinkers had paused; a solemn silence reigned through the whole room.
Madame Thénardier, petrified and mute, recommenced her conjectures: "Who is that old fellow? Is he a poor man? Is he a millionaire? Perhaps he is both; that is to say, a thief."
The face of the male Thénardier presented that expressive fold which accentuates the human countenance whenever the dominant instinct appears there in all its bestial force. The tavern-keeper stared alternately at the doll and at the traveller; he seemed to be scenting out the man, as he would have scented out a bag of money. This did not last longer than the space of a flash of lightning. He stepped up to his wife and said to her in a low voice:—
"That machine costs at least thirty francs. No nonsense. Down on your belly before that man!"
Gross natures have this in common with naïve natures, that they possess no transition state.
"Well, Cosette," said the Thénardier, in a voice that strove to be sweet, and which was composed of the bitter honey of malicious women, "aren't you going to take your doll?"
Cosette ventured to emerge from her hole.
"The gentleman has given you a doll, my little Cosette," said Thénardier, with a caressing air. "Take it; it is yours."
Cosette gazed at the marvellous doll in a sort of terror. Her face was still flooded with tears, but her eyes began to fill, like the sky at daybreak, with strange beams of joy. What she felt at that moment was a little like what she would have felt if she had been abruptly told, "Little one, you are the Queen of France."
It seemed to her that if she touched that doll, lightning would dart from it.
This was true, up to a certain point, for she said to herself that the Thénardier would scold and beat her.
Nevertheless, the attraction carried the day. She ended by drawing near and murmuring timidly as she turned towards Madame Thénardier:—
"May I, Madame?"
No words can render that air, at once despairing, terrified, and ecstatic.
"Pardi!" cried the Thénardier, "it is yours. The gentleman has given it to you."
"Truly, sir?" said Cosette. "Is it true? Is the 'lady' mine?"
The stranger's eyes seemed to be full of tears. He appeared to have reached that point of emotion where a man does not speak for fear lest he should weep. He nodded to Cosette, and placed the "lady's" hand in her tiny hand.
Cosette hastily withdrew her hand, as though that of the "lady" scorched her, and began to stare at the floor. We are forced to add that at that moment she stuck out her tongue immoderately. All at once she wheeled round and seized the doll in a transport.
"I shall call her Catherine," she said.
It was an odd moment when Cosette's rags met and clasped the ribbons and fresh pink muslins of the doll.
"Madame," she resumed, "may I put her on a chair?"
"Yes, my child," replied the Thénardier.
It was now the turn of Éponine and Azelma to gaze at Cosette with envy.
Cosette placed Catherine on a chair, then seated herself on the floor in front of her, and remained motionless, without uttering a word, in an attitude of contemplation.
"Play, Cosette," said the stranger.
"Oh! I am playing," returned the child.
This stranger, this unknown individual, who had the air of a visit which Providence was making on Cosette, was the person whom the Thénardier hated worse than any one in the world at that moment. However, it was necessary to control herself. Habituated as she was to dissimulation through endeavoring to copy her husband in all his actions, these emotions were more than she could endure. She made haste to send her daughters to bed, then she asked the man's permission to send Cosette off also; "for she has worked hard all day," she added with a maternal air. Cosette went off to bed, carrying Catherine in her arms.
From time to time the Thénardier went to the other end of the room where her husband was, to relieve her soul, as she said. She exchanged with her husband words which were all the more furious because she dared not utter them aloud.
"Old beast! What has he got in his belly, to come and upset us in this manner! To want that little monster to play! to give away forty-franc dolls to a jade that I would sell for forty sous, so I would! A little more and he will be saying Your Majesty to her, as though to the Duchesse de Berry! Is there any sense in it? Is he mad, then, that mysterious old fellow?"
"Why! it is perfectly simple," replied Thénardier, "if that amuses him! It amuses you to have the little one work; it amuses him to have her play. He's all right. A traveller can do what he pleases when he pays for it. If the old fellow is a philanthropist, what is that to you? If he is an imbecile, it does not concern you. What are you worrying for, so long as he has money?"
The language of a master, and the reasoning of an innkeeper, neither of which admitted of any reply.
The man had placed his elbows on the table, and resumed his thoughtful attitude. All the other travellers, both pedlers and carters, had withdrawn a little, and had ceased singing. They were staring at him from a distance, with a sort of respectful awe. This poorly dressed man, who drew "hind-wheels" from his pocket with so much ease, and who lavished gigantic dolls on dirty little brats in wooden shoes, was certainly a magnificent fellow, and one to be feared.
Many hours passed. The midnight mass was over, the chimes had ceased, the drinkers had taken their departure, the drinking-shop was closed, the public room was deserted, the fire extinct, the stranger still remained in the same place and the same attitude. From time to time he changed the elbow on which he leaned. That was all; but he had not said a word since Cosette had left the room.
The Thénardiers alone, out of politeness and curiosity, had remained in the room.
"Is he going to pass the night in that fashion?" grumbled the Thénardier. When two o'clock in the morning struck, she declared herself vanquished, and said to her husband, "I'm going to bed. Do as you like." Her husband seated himself at a table in the corner, lighted a candle, and began to read the Courrier Français.
A good hour passed thus. The worthy inn-keeper had perused the Courrier Français at least three times, from the date of the number to the printer's name. The stranger did not stir.
Thénardier fidgeted, coughed, spit, blew his nose, and creaked his chair. Not a movement on the man's part. "Is he asleep?" thought Thénardier. The man was not asleep, but nothing could arouse him.
At last Thénardier took off his cap, stepped gently up to him, and ventured to say:—
"Is not Monsieur going to his repose?"
Not going to bed would have seemed to him excessive and familiar. To repose smacked of luxury and respect. These words possess the mysterious and admirable property of swelling the bill on the following day. A chamber where one sleeps costs twenty sous; a chamber in which one reposes costs twenty francs.
"Well!" said the stranger, "you are right. Where is your stable?"
"Sir!" exclaimed Thénardier, with a smile, "I will conduct you, sir."
He took the candle; the man picked up his bundle and cudgel, and Thénardier conducted him to a chamber on the first floor, which was of rare splendor, all furnished in mahogany, with a low bedstead, curtained with red calico.
"What is this?" said the traveller.
"It is really our bridal chamber," said the tavern-keeper. "My wife and I occupy another. This is only entered three or four times a year."
"I should have liked the stable quite as well," said the man, abruptly.
Thénardier pretended not to hear this unamiable remark.
He lighted two perfectly fresh wax candles which figured on the chimney-piece. A very good fire was flickering on the hearth.
On the chimney-piece, under a glass globe, stood a woman's head-dress in silver wire and orange flowers.
"And what is this?" resumed the stranger.
"That, sir," said Thénardier, "is my wife's wedding bonnet."
The traveller surveyed the object with a glance which seemed to say, "There really was a time, then, when that monster was a maiden?"
Thénardier lied, however. When he had leased this paltry building for the purpose of converting it into a tavern, he had found this chamber decorated in just this manner, and had purchased the furniture and obtained the orange flowers at second hand, with the idea that this would cast a graceful shadow on "his spouse," and would result in what the English call respectability for his house.
When the traveller turned round, the host had disappeared. Thénardier had withdrawn discreetly, without venturing to wish him a good night, as he did not wish to treat with disrespectful cordiality a man whom he proposed to fleece royally the following morning.
The inn-keeper retired to his room. His wife was in bed, but she was not asleep. When she heard her husband's step she turned over and said to him:—
"Do you know, I'm going to turn Cosette out of doors to-morrow."
Thénardier replied coldly:—
"How you do go on!"
They exchanged no further words, and a few moments later their candle was extinguished.
As for the traveller, he had deposited his cudgel and his bundle in a corner. The landlord once gone, he threw himself into an armchair and remained for some time buried in thought. Then he removed his shoes, took one of the two candles, blew out the other, opened the door, and quitted the room, gazing about him like a person who is in search of something. He traversed a corridor and came upon a staircase. There he heard a very faint and gentle sound like the breathing of a child. He followed this sound, and came to a sort of triangular recess built under the staircase, or rather formed by the staircase itself. This recess was nothing else than the space under the steps. There, in the midst of all sorts of old papers and potsherds, among dust and spiders' webs, was a bed—if one can call by the name of bed a straw pallet so full of holes as to display the straw, and a coverlet so tattered as to show the pallet. No sheets. This was placed on the floor.
In this bed Cosette was sleeping.
The man approached and gazed down upon her.
Cosette was in a profound sleep; she was fully dressed. In the winter she did not undress, in order that she might not be so cold.
Against her breast was pressed the doll, whose large eyes, wide open, glittered in the dark. From time to time she gave vent to a deep sigh as though she were on the point of waking, and she strained the doll almost convulsively in her arms. Beside her bed there was only one of her wooden shoes.
A door which stood open near Cosette's pallet permitted a view of a rather large, dark room. The stranger stepped into it. At the further extremity, through a glass door, he saw two small, very white beds. They belonged to Éponine and Azelma. Behind these beds, and half hidden, stood an uncurtained wicker cradle, in which the little boy who had cried all the evening lay asleep.
The stranger conjectured that this chamber connected with that of the Thénardier pair. He was on the point of retreating when his eye fell upon the fireplace—one of those vast tavern chimneys where there is always so little fire when there is any fire at all, and which are so cold to look at. There was no fire in this one, there was not even ashes; but there was something which attracted the stranger's gaze, nevertheless. It was two tiny children's shoes, coquettish in shape and unequal in size. The traveller recalled the graceful and immemorial custom in accordance with which children place their shoes in the chimney on Christmas eve, there to await in the darkness some sparkling gift from their good fairy. Éponine and Azelma had taken care not to omit this, and each of them had set one of her shoes on the hearth.
The traveller bent over them.
The fairy, that is to say, their mother, had already paid her visit, and in each he saw a brand-new and shining ten-sou piece.
The man straightened himself up, and was on the point of withdrawing, when far in, in the darkest corner of the hearth, he caught sight of another object. He looked at it, and recognized a wooden shoe, a frightful shoe of the coarsest description, half dilapidated and all covered with ashes and dried mud. It was Cosette's sabot. Cosette, with that touching trust of childhood, which can always be deceived yet never discouraged, had placed her shoe on the hearth-stone also.
Hope in a child who has never known anything but despair is a sweet and touching thing.
There was nothing in this wooden shoe.
The stranger fumbled in his waistcoat, bent over and placed a louis d'or in Cosette's shoe.
Then he regained his own chamber with the stealthy tread of a wolf.